Fighting Respectfully 1.1: How to Do Conflict Well

Resolve to Become Competent at Conflict

Yesterday, we discussed four dynamics that are so toxic to relationships that they predict divorce with uncanny accuracy. This doesn’t come as any surprise, however, when you know the dynamics that make relationships succeed. This is the subject of today’s blog: how you can help create the climate you want in your relationships, even (or especially) during conflict.

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman describes six skills that you can develop and master to create the relational conditions you want as you resolve conflict. Because conflict is a natural part of any relationship between people who aren’t clones, becoming competent at conflict is critical if you want harmony in your relationships.

Softened Start-up

My partner reminded me of Gottman’s first conflict resolution skill just yesterday: softened start-up. I had allowed my frustration about an issue to escalate beyond complaint-level which led to an explosion instead of a complaint. He reminded me that if I had been emotionally mature about it and in control of myself when I addressed the issue, he might have been more open to discussing it maturely himself.

Repair and De-escalation

A second conflict resolution skill to develop is repair and de-escalation. In order to avoid a car accident, you sometimes have to apply the brakes. Same in relationships. When we’re wise, my partner and I signal the need to slow down for an important conversation by putting our fingers together in the shape of a tent, indicating a private, sacred place where we can give each other and the issue undivided attention. Conflict resolution goes much better when we slow down enough and remember to do this.

Affirming some part of your partner’s viewpoint, rather than immediately discounting it, is another way to de-escalate a potential problem. This helps keep a positive perspective of your partner and the relationship. (For many more ways to de-escalate and repair, see The Seven Principles….)

Accepting the Influence of Your Partner

A third conflict resolution skill is accepting the influence of your partner. If you’re struggling with accepting your partner’s influence on any particular issue, it’s a sign that an unacknowledged, unsolvable problem may be preventing compromise. In this event, trying to identify the values and dreams hidden behind the immovable barrier can help couples find some common ground. Identifying the core values that are in conflict can help you return to shared power as you try to yield to each other to win. Then everyone gets some of what they want. Of course, that means you have to make peace with not getting everything you want, because no one does.


Accepting the influence of your partner is critical to developing the next conflict resolution skill: compromise. Even if you’re convinced your right, your relationship won’t be loving if you cannot (or refuse to) negotiate. However, negotiation can only occur when you have cultivated the conditions for it: softening start-up, repair, and remaining calm. These skills create a positive mode, an openness, to solution finding, and make it easier to accept the influence of your partner.

In order to reach compromise, you’ll need to ask questions of your partner so that you can understand his or her point of view. Look for the kernels of reason in the other’s perspective, and you’ll prevent your discussion from becoming overwhelmingly negative. Then when you find common ground, you’ll both feel a sense of satisfaction for a job well done.

Accepting One Another

Accepting one another, the next skill for effective problem solving, refers to being tolerant of each other’s faults. You cannot change your partner; you can only negotiate to find ways that each of you can bend and accommodate so that the overly rigid tree of your relationship doesn’t fall over in the harsh winds of disagreement.


And finally, soothing oneself and one’s partner is a skill that any individual and couple need to have in their conflict resolution toolbox. Disagreeing is simply hard when one’s physiology gets involved, and that’s inevitable. At such times, it’s important to take a break from the conflict and come back to it when the body has calmed down. Letting your partner know that you’re reaching your limit, preferably before you’re screaming about that reality, can help reset the discussion so that it can be more productive later on. A good rule of thumb is to allow at least 20 minutes for physiological soothing breaks.

During this 20 minute break, don’t allow your thoughts to revel in self-righteousness or martyrdom. Do something that actually distracts you (exercise, listen to music, meditate, read a magazine), so that when you return to the table, you’re refreshed and ready to listen with a more open mind.

After you have calmed yourself, you might even be able to calm your partner by taking an interest in how your partner experiences emotional reactivity. Expressing such interest may not only soothe your partner but may help you see your partner as a person, not just someone who triggers your stress responses.

The Inevitable Impasse

Despite our best efforts to cultivate the skills of respectful conflict, there will be times when there seems to be an impasse. At these times, you can employ another set of skills that can help you move from gridlock to dialogue. That’s the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Don’t go away! We’ll be right back!


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